It appears that Senator Bernie Sanders has lost his latest battle against private space ventures, as the Senate has voted against a motion that would’ve cut funding for a second NASA lunar lander.
On Wednesday, senators turned down Sanders’ motion to remove authorization for $10 billion in NASA funding that Blue Origin, the aerospace firm led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is competing for against other private space companies. This funding is slated to come out of the federal budget and support NASA’s plans to fund a second privately built lunar lander. SpaceX is already contracted with the space agency to build a lunar lander, but NASA wants a second option. The landers will be used in the upcoming Artemis missions in which U.S. astronauts will return to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years.
But Sanders has been outspoken against the bill authorizing the required funding, arguing that billionaires like Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk should not be on the receiving end of a “bailout” from the government, as he terms it. “It does not make a lot of sense to give $10 billion to the second-wealthiest person in this country,” Sanders told the Senate on Wednesday. “Is that really the kind of space program that the American people want?” he continued. “I think not.”
The bill is part of a larger funding project that would direct $52 billion in subsidies and funds to boost U.S. competitiveness and scientific research, with $10 billion going towards a second lunar lander through to 2025. SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion NASA contract in 2021 to build an Artemis lander, but with news that NASA is desiring a second lander, Bezos is hoping to get in on the action—especially given his failed attempt to overturn the NASA-SpaceX agreement in a federal court.
Sanders has been outspoken in his criticisms of the two obnoxiously wealthy space enthusiasts, calling for raises to the tax rate to break up the concentration of wealth in the United States. As NASA continues to rely more on its private partnerships—whether contracts to develop the planned return to the Moon or private astronauts’ trips to the International Space Station—Sanders has grown increasingly frustrated with the space agency.
In an April opinion piece for The Guardian, Sanders went as far as to call NASA an “ATM” for Bezos and Musk. “At a time when over half of the people in this country live paycheck to paycheck, when more than 70 million are uninsured or underinsured and when some 600,000 Americans are homeless, should we really be providing a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout for Bezos to fuel his space hobby?” Sanders argued.
Senators in support of the bill argued for keeping the Artemis program alive. “NASA recognizes that competition makes us better. That’s why they asked us to fund this second provider for the lunar lander,” Tommy Tuberville said on the Senate floor Wednesday, according to SpaceNews. The motion “would take a sledgehammer to American ingenuity and the Artemis program.”
Indeed, even during the peak of the Apollo program, NASA relied on a handful of private space companies to develop landers, rovers, and other technology to ensure that humans would make it to the lunar surface. Perhaps the personalities behind today’s private space ventures are, well, more pronounced, but it certainly isn’t unheard of for NASA to collaborate with corporations. And while Musk and Bezos stand to profit from these ventures, the Artemis projects should contribute to the creation of new and good jobs—Sanders’ very valid points about the concentration of wealth and other pressing social issues notwithstanding.
It’s also worth noting that Blue Origin is by no means guaranteed the Sustaining Lunar Development contract. Any U.S. company is welcome to bid, with NASA’s decision about which firm gets to build the second lunar lander expected early next year.